KINSHASA, Congo - Voting materials arrived late or sometimes not at all in precincts throughout the country, but Congo's elections went ahead, raising doubts about the legitimacy of a poll that already has seen at least nine people killed and could drag sub-Saharan Africa's largest nation back into conflict.
Country experts and opposition leaders had urged the government to delay Monday's vote due to massive logistical problems. Some districts of Congo, which has suffered decades of dictatorship and two civil wars, are so remote that ballot boxes had to be transported across muddy trails on the heads of porters, and by dugout canoe across churning rivers.
There are fears that the Central African nation, whose rain forests are still inhabited by rebel armies, could be plunged into violence again if it is unable to agree on the results of the presidential and legislative election.
Violence over the weekend left at least four people dead, and it continued Monday when gunmen opened fire on a truck transporting ballots in the southeastern town of Lubumbashi. That and a subsequent attack by unidentified assailants left five more dead, according to Dikanga Kazadi, the provincial interior minister. In the capital, police fired tear gas to break up a crowd that had amassed outside a voting bureau.
In pockets throughout the country, voting centres were forced to open late, and some didn't open at all as they waited for trucks ferrying the necessary forms and equipment.
At dawn — in polling station No. 10048 in a Catholic school in the capital — a poll worker cut the orange police tape at the door to signal the start of voting. At polling station No. 10053 in the same school, election officials could not open because the ink used to mark the index fingers of voters had not been delivered.
"We can't start like this. We're not even properly dressed," said Baudouin Lusagila, the head of the polling station, whose team also lacked the signature blue vests printed with the electoral commission's logo. "Of course I'm worried. There is too much improvisation. Too many delays."
The vote is the second since the end of Congo's last war and the first to be organized by the government instead of the international community. There were delays at every step in the preparation. The ballots were only printed in neighbouring South Africa two weeks ago — not enough time to deliver them to the remote corners of a nation the size of Western Europe where less than 2 per cent of the roads are paved.
Late Monday, election commission spokesman Matthieu Mpita announced that polling stations that had not yet received the necessary materials would be allowed to stay open until they did.
The government is in a hurry to hold the vote because incumbent President Joseph Kabila's term expires in the first week of December. If a new president is not elected by then, analysts say the country could slide into a situation of unconstitutional power — a scenario that could provoke further unrest.
At polling stations that opened on time in the capital, lines were small and several were empty due to torrential rain. Inside the Gombe secondary school where Kabila cast his ballot, the women lined up after him were wearing shower caps. Kabila urged citizens to go to the polls and warned of what was at stake.
"Our country, the Democratic Republic of Congo has come a long way, from a situation of war, and of all manner of conflict whose end result was suffering," Kabila said on state television on the eve of the election. "Let us be careful not to return to where we have come from. By participating in the vote ... we are guaranteeing the stability and the future of our country."
In the eastern city of Goma, Cindy McCain, the wife of United States Sen. John McCain, is leading a delegation of poll watchers. She said that in one polling station, they found ballot boxes were already a third full when they arrived at dawn.
There were also unconfirmed reports of full boxes being found in Kasai Occidental province, and of voting officials refusing to show witnesses that boxes were empty before voting began in the locality of Mbandaka.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the U.S. was concerned by reports of "anomalies" in Congo's vote. Asked if the election was credible, Toner said the U.S. would reserve judgment until the final results are out.
Among the logistical challenges is the staggering number of candidates (18,385) competing for the 500 seats in parliament. Posters of candidates featured their number on the ballot, which is as thick as a major newspaper's weekend supplement. A third of Congolese adults can't read, a rate that is even higher among women. Many were showing up with slips of paper filled in by relatives stating the number of their candidate of choice.
Even that didn't help Celine Madiata, first in line to vote at the polling station inside a Catholic college in the capital. She stepped behind the cardboard voting screen, and opened the voluminous ballot paper, carefully scrolling down.
It took her several minutes to recognize the No. 50, which she circled. "I voted for Bala Basu," she said.
Candidate No. 50, however, is not Bala Basu. It's a politician named Rubenga Kamanda. Country watchers worry that mistakes like Madiata's are being repeated throughout the country and could delegitimize the election in the eyes of the population.
"It's like leading an animal to the slaughterhouse. It doesn't realize until it gets there what is in store for it," said Jerome Bonso, co-ordinator of the Coalition for Peaceful and Transparent Elections. "They led us into this election. The population was not prepared for it. And now there is a real risk of conflict when the results come out."
It's unclear if the lateness observed in voting centres nationwide will affect the outcome of the vote, but it added to a cloud of uncertainty. Because the opposition is split with 10 candidates vying to unseat the 40-year-old Kabila, most analysts expect him to win.
That will come as an especially hard blow in Kinshasa, where his popularity has hit rock bottom due to the spiraling cost of basic goods and worsening poverty. Billboards showing the youthful president have been defaced, tarred with mud.
Kabila was first thrust into the position of president a decade ago, after the assassination of his father, Laurent Kabila, the rebel leader who toppled the country's dictator of 32 years, Mobutu Sese Seko.
The younger Kabila initially benefited from his father's aura, who was credited with ridding the country of Mobutu, a man known for chartering the Concorde for personal trips and sipping pink champagne while his population languished in abject poverty.
People celebrated when the ruler's family was forced to run onto a cargo plane to escape, the first lady still wearing her nightgown. But a campaign poster for Mobutu's son — Francois Mobutu, who is one of the 11 presidential candidates — underlines how much the younger Kabila's popularity has dipped.
"Mobutu was there for 32 years. He pillaged the country. But are we any better off now? The Democratic Republic of Congo has manganese, cobalt, coltan, oil, diamonds," said 45-year-old Ndukis Mubiala, a taxi driver who is voting for the ex-dictator's son. "I'm a chauffeur. I don't own a house. In my bank account, there's zero. Like before, 10 per cent of the population gets everything, 90 per cent gets nothing."
Associated Press writer Saleh Mwanamilongo in Kinshasa, Congo, and Bradley Klapper in Washington contributed to this report.